Things haven't been easy for Mega Man fans in the 2010s. Between the cancellations of Mega Man Universe and Mega Man Legends 3 and the disappointing spiritual revival Mighty No. 9, it felt like every hope of seeing the series' beloved, classic action gameplay return was dashed in some way. So it was to great anticipation and expectations that Capcom announced Mega Man 11, the first all-new Mega Man game in over eight years. And while the game does deliver on its promises of being a charming, challenging action game with a rogue's gallery of robots to scrap, it makes a few puzzling choices that keep it from true greatness.
Those who have been enjoying our blue buddy's adventures within the last three decades are probably familiar with the gameplay formula here: You go through eight themed levels in the order of your choosing, claiming the weapons of the end-stage Robot Masters you defeat--and which can be used to exploit weaknesses in subsequent boss encounters. Once the eight robots are beaten, you advance to a tiered fortress with a final Dr. Wily showdown waiting at the end.
The big new feature this time around, however, is that our hero has been fitted with the Double Gear System, which allows him to increase his weapon power or slow down the environment for a limited time. The Power Gear can increase the output of the standard Mega Buster or enhance special weapons with more potent effects, while the Speed Gear can help you in tricky spots where timing or moving quickly is crucial. However, these effects only last a few seconds, and once time runs out you have to wait for a cooldown period to end or collect a special item before you can use them again, preventing you from relying too heavily on them. You're also not the only one using this new power, as you'll find Wily's machines are also putting it to use.
One thing you'll notice right off the bat is how well the game manages to nail the overall feel and charm of the series in its visual presentation. The 3D character models of Mega Man, his friends, and his Robot Master foes are on point, with subtle visual flourishes like Auto's exasperated expressions and robot bird Beat struggling to lift Mega's weight adding a little bit of humor. The stages themselves are packed with the sort of strangely cute, googly-eyed robot enemies that have come to define the franchise, and background elements like Blast Man's self-advertisements or Block Man's strange hieroglyphs add a spark of personality to each of the stages. With visuals this nice, it's easy to overlook the soundtrack, which is pleasant but wholly unmemorable.
Unfortunately, the early-game experience in Mega Man 11 is a trying one. Veterans will certainly notice how unusually long each of the stages are. While you might assume that more Mega Man action is good, the stage length serves to make the game far more frustrating than it should be, as checkpoints are sparsely placed and extra lives are few and far between. Making things worse, you often hit the most challenging parts of a stage in rapid succession, affording you little time to catch your breath. The stage design also tends to put trial-and-error areas like a labyrinth of instant-kill spike walls or a series of rapid-fire jumps at the end of these lengthy levels, making game overs especially demoralizing.
In other Mega Man games, failure feels more like a learning experience than a setback; here, however, the prospect of redoing a 10-minute level laden with strict checkpoints, instant-kill elements, and a mid-boss brawl often feels painful. The Double Gears help somewhat in navigating the more difficult sections, but they always seems to run out of power too quickly to be reliable. Progress gets better once you manage to build up a repertoire of boss weapons and purchase upgrades with collectible bolts found in the stages, but there's still a small degree of frustration at certain stage design elements, like Torch Man's three stretches of instant-kill flame wall pursuit, that never quite goes away. And while you can play the game on a lower difficulty, giving you more lives and checkpoints to make the stage hazards more manageable, it overcompensates by severely lowering damage to the point where boss battles become a dull pushover.
Of course, the levels--overly long as they are--aren't entirely bad, and there are a lot of enjoyable and interesting ideas. Blast Man's stage has you blowing exploding robots into crates and other mechs to create chain blasts, while Impact Man has some reflex-testing areas where you need to dodge a series of drilling robots that fly out in quick succession. The mid-stage bosses are all pretty great, as well; my personal favorite is the robotic, icicle-summoning mammoth skeleton in Tundra Man's stage. The Robot Masters themselves are also a lot of fun to fight, and they'll actually change up their patterns by using their own Double Gears as their health depletes, keeping you on your toes. The collected boss weapons are also tons of fun to use, and the Power Gear variations are a neat touch that calls to mind the Mega Man X series.
Still, it's easy to forget how much fun you had in other stages when you're stuck getting nailed by yet another spike trap in the tail end of Acid Man's stage or struggling with the springy walls and obnoxious slappy-hand platforms present in Bounce Man's miserable abode. It culminates in a final set of levels that are both awesome and underwhelming: awesome in that they have some really fun gimmicks and bosses, underwhelming in that it doesn't feel like it's as significant of a skill test because you already dealt with some of the game's biggest obstacles in the stages prior.
Mega Man 11 is a good action game that you can easily identify with, but it's far too uneven and bumpy to hold up against some of the best installments in the venerable franchise. At its best, it's a terrific retro romp with exciting boss encounters and unique gimmicks. At its worst, it's a frustrating experience whose too-long levels toss out infuriating obstacles to progress at the worst times. But even with these issues, it just feels good to see Mega Man back in action, and Mega Man 11 will hopefully be the start of many new robotic adventures to come.